Waiting to strike the Kenya Defense Force?
by James Verini
Monday, December 31, 2012
Mogadishu is famous for its destroyed infrastructure. By contrast, Kismayo, home to about 180,000 people, is striking for its lack of infrastructure. Residents will tell you this is because Kismayo, a medieval fishing settlement that evolved into a spur of the Swahili-coast livestock trade during the colonial era, has changed hands so often.
In the 1890s, the Sultan of Muscat ceded Kismayo to Britain, which in turn gave it to Italy.
After Somalia won its independence in 1960, Kismayo’s business elite turned its port into a regional trade hub, but when the civil war began in 1991, the city was flung between warlords. US Marines occupied it, with little effect.
It was fought over for more than a decade by local militias, the Transitional Federal Government, the Ethiopians, Ras Kamboni, and Al-Shabaab’s predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union, which shifted its base from Mogadishu to Kismayo in 2006.
Al-Shabaab, the extremist wing of the Islamic Courts Union, took full control of the city in late 2009.
The day after arriving at the airport camp, we piled into an armoured personnel carrier in a military convoy. At the front of the line of vehicles was a SUV carrying a machine that jams radio frequencies used to detonate improvised explosive devices.
The Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) soldiers wore body armour and helmets. Riding heedlessly alongside us in a “technical” — the battlewagon of choice in Somalia, a stripped-down pickup truck mounted with a Russian-made DShK anti-aircraft gun — was their Ras Kamboni escort. The only thing the gunner had on for protection was a pair of earphones.
We passed by an open-air dump where garbage smouldered, by encampments of domed huts made from tree branches and cloth, and then into Kismayo’s dirt streets, which are lined with one-storey stucco buildings. Al-Shabaab insignias were still prominent on walls, a reminder of the town’s suffering.
When Al-Shabaab came into southern Somalia, it helped decimate what had been the country’s breadbasket by taxing and harassing farmers and pastoralists. It then forced out aid agencies that were trying to feed the population.
Kismayo’s nameless main road, the only paved one, runs through Liberty Square, where a toppled monumental column erected after independence now lies on the ground in pieces. Under Al-Shabaab, Liberty Square became a stage for public floggings, dismemberments, and executions.
When its police wanted to bury people up to their necks, then stone them to death, as they did to a young woman accused of adultery in 2008, they used the softer ground of the nearby soccer stadium.
At the Kismayo port, freighters from India, Pakistan, and Syria were docked, unloading shipments of fruit juice, chewing gum, milk, and sugar. Al-Shabaab derived most of its revenue from taxing the goods that went in and out of the port.
No great fans of Al-Shabaab, the merchants nonetheless allowed it to rule Kismayo because it was good for business — Al-Shabaab simplified the bribery system and did away with competing militia roadblocks set up for extortion. Now the KDF occupies the port’s warehouses and inspects every ship.
A delegation of merchants and community leaders met us in one of the warehouses. One by one, they came forward to list their grievances.
“We ask for things from the central government, but they don’t give us anything,” one man complained. “The world is doing nothing for us.”
A port administrator I met, Abduli, said that although Al-Shabaab was good for business in certain ways, it was not worth the toll the group exacted on Kismayo.
“In the port, in the market, Shabaab always, ‘Give money, give money, give money’. Shabaab tax hundred dollars per shipment!” he said. “Shabaab kill everyone. Kill mothers, kill babies, kill everything.”
When I asked whether he was affiliated with a particular militia or other group, Abduli admitted that he was a member of Ras Kamboni. But, he added, “Now clan is over. Tribe, over.”
“What comes next?” I asked.
“Is come tourism!” he said. “Is come tourism to Kismayo. Kismayo beautiful. Every culture, black and white, come. I want life, you know? I want the government. I want the administration. Shabaab attacking is problem only.”
Al-Shabaab is still attacking. The week before we arrived, gunmen shot up the home of a local security official. Three days later, grenades were thrown into a crowd.
The victims were brought to Kismayo General Hospital. They lay in beds in the hospital’s courtyard, under a tree, surrounded by refuse. I spoke with a woman whose head and leg were bandaged.
A grenade hit her near the temple, she told me, then landed in the lap of a man sitting near her. It killed him, but she somehow survived.
“I was very lucky,” she said. An even worse wound was caused by a bullet to her leg, which did not come from the attackers.
After the grenades were thrown, Ras Kamboni troops present at the scene shot indiscriminately into the crowd and the air. Two other casualties I met at the hospital were uninjured by the explosions but were shot afterward by the militiamen.
After returning from the hospital, I walked out to the wire at the new airport camp. A line of small bunkers with machine gun nests faced an expanse of sand and shrubs.
I spoke to a pair of Kenyan soldiers who were playing checkers with soda bottle caps. I asked what they thought of their counterparts in Ras Kamboni and the Somali National Army. They had mixed feelings.
All the Somalis were ill-equipped, badly trained, and badly paid (if paid at all), but some were more disciplined than others and some knew how to fight Al-Shabaab.
“In guerrilla warfare you don’t need training,” one of the soldiers told me. “You just need to know how to shoot and duck.”
I asked whether he trusted the Somalis. “We have no choice,” he said.
It is well known to the troops here that Ras Kamboni’s leader, Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, was a high-ranking administrator in Al-Shabaab before turning against them.
Indeed, Ras Kamboni was an Islamist insurgency before Al-Shabaab was even created. Many families in the area have members in Al-Shabaab and others in Ras Kamboni or the Somali army.
The Kenyans suspect that they tip one another off about operations. But there is little he can do about it, the Kenyan soldier said. “Now we are brothers.”
No body armour
Some Ras Kamboni fighters have been tasked with guarding the villages around Kismayo, where they live among the population. Others man the airport terminal. They stand out starkly from the KDF troops.
They wear tattered solid-green fatigues and have no body armour, helmets, or, often, boots — they have grown used to facing Al-Shabaab head-on in sandals, with old single-shot rifles.
In the terminal, whose halls smell of urine and excrement, they sleep on blankets on the floor beside walls decorated with graffiti left by Al-Shabaab. One picture shows an Al-Shabaab technical shooting at a helicopter. It looks like a child’s rendering of a scene from Black Hawk Down, and indeed it may be.
Al-Shabaab reportedly recruited children from Kismayo to put on the front line. (And the 1993 episode has become part of the national mythos.)
This is precisely what President Kibaki wanted to avoid. Perhaps for that reason, after taking Kismayo, Kenya has cooled its heels.
The KDF soldiers appear to be mostly concerned with keeping a neat camp. One day, I watched a group of them sweep a runway — for two hours. I asked how they liked life during wartime. “I’ve been here for six months,” one soldier said. “Can you find me an American wife?”
It is generally assumed that success in Somalia, particularly in the south, depends on the ability of the African Union and the new Somali president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, to help the country’s desperate population as quickly as possible. They are already behind.
Despite a budget that will approach $800 million (Sh64 billion) this year, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has only just begun to think about planning for the peace — in part because it thought the fighting would drag on much longer.
“They never expected to win this fast. They thought they’d have time to figure out the civilian component,” says Alex Rondos, the EU special representative to the Horn of Africa. “They’re victims of their own success.”
When Operation Linda Nchi began last year, an editorial in the Daily Nation pointed out that after troops captured territory, “Kenya’s biggest challenge is to prosecute an effective counter-insurgency campaign to degrade Al-Shabaab.”
Everyone I spoke with, from AMISOM officials to diplomats, agreed with that analysis. They also agreed that Al-Shabaab is probably not in retreat from southern Somalia so much as it is in retrenchment.
With contributions from the Somali diaspora drying up, thanks to its growing unpopularity, Al-Shabaab knew, long before the KDF reached Kismayo, that it did not have the manpower or money to face a conventional army. So its fighters have blended into the population, where they are recruiting young freelance assassins and waiting to see what AMISOM does next.
Al-Shabaab fighters have studied the Taliban and Iraqi insurgencies, and in some cases contributed to them.
“Shabaab has been preparing for this onslaught for a long time. They’ve been preparing to sink in, to make the leadership mobile,” an intelligence analyst involved in operations against Al-Shabaab told me. “Time is not on our side.”
Yet neither AMISOM nor the KDF appears to have a long-term counterinsurgency strategy. One possible reason for this is that senior officials in the new Somali administration and AMISOM are involved in negotiations with Al-Shabaab to disarm.
Another, more obvious, reason is that Kenya has no experience in counterinsurgency (its Anti-Terrorism Police Unit investigates Al-Shabaab affiliates in Kenya). But probably the most important reason is that Kenya does not want to get embroiled in a guerrilla war like the one in Mogadishu.
“We’re seeing a caution about going beyond areas they can control,” one diplomat said.
At the airport camp, Hassan said that his mission now is to “mop up” Al-Shabaab holdouts. But when I asked whether he had men collecting intelligence among the population, he said that was being left to Ras Kamboni.
I asked on two occasions whether he was conducting regular patrols. The first time he said no. The second time he said yes, but admitted that they were mostly meant to secure the airport.
Asked whether he was conducting systematic house raids or attempting any other standard counterinsurgency measures, Hassan offered: “We’ve cordoned villages.” I asked how many. “Two,” he said.
When I asked why, in the two months since the KDF took Kismayo, no local Al-Shabaab higher-ups had been captured, even though they are all personally known to Sheikh Madobe and others in the area, he said, “I don’t know. That’s a question for the international community.” He added, “I’m only doing what I’ve been told to do.”
James Verini is a Nairobi-based contributor to Foreign Policy. The article was distributed by the Public Information Unit of the United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS)